Celtics steal Game 1 from Pacers, pass first real test in dramatic fashion: 'That s--- was chaos'

BOSTON — Everyone wanted to know how the Celtics would respond to their first real test of the NBA playoffs. Tuesday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals ultimately provided the answer: Chaotically.

"That's a great word," said Boston's Jayson Tatum, "because that s*** was chaos. That s*** was wild."

Jaylen Brown's mad-dash 3-pointer with six seconds left in the fourth quarter sent the game to an extra period, and Tatum's back-to-back three-point plays in the final 75 seconds of overtime put a 133-128 win out of reach from the feisty Indiana Pacers. Yet somehow we are left to wonder if they are clutch or not.

This will be the sticking point on sports talk shows on Wednesday. Brown told himself something else.

“Before the inbounds, I was just talking to myself: ‘If I get this shot, it’s going in,’" said Brown, who posted a 26-7-5 in 44:25. "I was just telling myself the whole time, ‘If you get it, it’s going up, and it’s going in.’”

You are clutch if you are victorious, I guess, but there were plenty of times Boston felt anything but.

Brown's turnover with 4:39 remaining in regulation of a two-point game was Exhibit A. He telegraphed a pass that he threw directly to Pascal Siakam, whose dunk on the other end gave Indiana a 108-104 lead.

That malfunction was topped by Tatum's pass to no one with 1:48 left in overtime. When Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton corralled the careless turnover, Boston's Derrick White fouled him on a 3-point attempt in transition, gifting Indiana a trio of free throws. Haliburton made all three for a 123-121 lead.

"I'm so glad we won the game," said Tatum, "because I would've been sick."

The only one who played with poise throughout the night, it seemed, was Boston's Jrue Holiday, who scored 20 of his season-high 28 points after halftime, adding eight assists, seven boards and three steals.

“Jrue came out and balled, man," said Brown. "He’s the reason why we won this game.”

There were more meltdowns. The Celtics coughed up a 13-point lead in the final minutes of the third quarter. Their fourth-quarter offense got stuck in a muddy mixture of isolation, 3-pointers and isolation 3-pointers. They flubbed the open threes they did manufacture — until Brown made his in Siakam's grill.

“We didn’t necessarily play well enough where we may have deserved to win," said Tatum, whose night netted game-highs of 36 points, 12 rebounds and a +20 rating. "JB gave us a second chance by hitting that shot, and we just talked about it in the huddle. ‘We’ve got a second chance. Let’s take advantage of it.’”

The Celtics had more lives than Kenny from "South Park," and Indiana granted most of them. With his team leading 117-114 inside of 30 seconds remaining in regulation, Haliburton inexplicably dribbled out of bounds. Rather than attempt a game-tying 3, White missed a layup, and Tatum missed the follow-up — a fadeaway jump shot — and again the Pacers had the ball, a three-point lead and the game in their hands.

And again they resuscitated Boston, throwing the ensuing inbounds pass off of Siakam's hands. Celtics ball. Eight seconds left. Holiday feeds Brown in the corner. "Bang!" yelped ESPN's Mike Breen. "Bang!"

“Man, that was a tough shot," said Celtics veteran Al Horford. "A very tough shot.”

“It’s simple: Big-time players make big-time plays," added Tatum. "That was a hell of a shot.”

“This loss is totally on me," said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, unprompted. "With 10 seconds in regulation, we should’ve just taken the timeout, advanced the ball, found a way to get in, made a free throw or two and ended the game, but it didn’t happen, and we made some other mistakes, but our guys just need to concentrate on fighting the way they fought in this game from start to finish, and we’ll be back Thursday.”

The Pacers were not without their positives, either. They rebounded from a 12-0 deficit in the opening minutes. Haliburton's last-second 35-footer tied the game at halftime, 64-64. He banked home another 3-pointer to draw Indiana within 94-93 at the third-quarter buzzer. The Pacers scored five times on six possessions in the first three minutes of crunch time, taking a 115-110 lead with two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Then it all went to hell. Or elsewhere, depending on your perspective.

“A lot of things had to go wrong for us and right for them," said Carlisle, "and they did.”

Most of it from both teams was far from clutch. Some was extremely clutch. Did the Pacers fumble the bag? Did the Celtics pull one out of their you-know-whats? This game was all in the eye of the beholder.

And this beholder thinks this kind of performance will not be enough against whichever Western Conference opponent awaits in the NBA Finals. A better team would have extinguished Boston. Would have being the operative phrase. We have no idea what will happen next, as Tuesday made crystal clear.

What we do know: Boston has played 11 postseason games, won nine of them, and needs seven more to deliver the franchise's 18th championship. That was one hell of a basketball contest, the Celtics' first real test and one it passed — barely, but nobody will remember the grade we give them in this moment.

We will just remember the chaos. As Brown said, "Welcome to the NBA playoffs."